The Current

Ashley Smith's mother says it's time to limit solitary confinement in prison

An inquest into the death of Ashley Smith said prisons should limit solitary confinement. The government said no. Now Ashley's mom, speaks up.
The death of Ashley Smith sparked a thousand questions about women and girls in our prison system; the use and abuse of solitary confinement; and inmates' access to mental health care. Her death also sparked more than a hundred specific recommendations to government. But it seems now few if any of them will be taken up. We speak with Ashley Smith's mother, Coralee Smith. 


The death of Ashley Smith was a wake-up call, a shocking display to many of how our prisons rely on solitary confinement. (CP/HO)

For the past year or so there has been a flicker of hope that the senseless death of Ashley Smith might bring about some real change in our prison system.

But as of late last week, that flicker of hope has dimmed for some...

Ashley Smith was 19-years old when she died on the floor of a cell in the Grand Valley Institution, a federal prison for women in Kitchener, Ontario. Ashley Smith was being held in solitary confinement... In fact, aside from time spent shuttling between institutions, she had known nothing but solitary confinement for 11-and-a-half months. She died by tearing a cloth into strips, tying a ligature around her neck, and choking herself until she stopped breathing. We know this because prison guards were looking on through a window in her cell door. They were under orders not to intervene as long as Ashley was still breathing.

That was seven years ago. A Coroner's Inquest into the matter last year ruled that Ashley Smith's death was a homicide, and issued 104 specific recommendations based on her case. The coroner's recommendations included improving mental health care services for inmates, and limiting the use of solitary confinement. In recent days former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour has echoed that call, slamming what she calls Canada's "addiction" to the destructive practice of solitary confinement in prisons.

The federal government waited nearly a year to respond to those formal recommendations, but finally did last week, just before rising for winter break. The government's response has been either to reject or ignore nearly all of the coroner's key recommendations. Most notably, the Correctional Service of Canada rejected the call to limit the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.

Coralee Smith is Ashley Smith's mother. She was in Halifax.

We requested an interview with Federal Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney, Parliamentary Secretary Roxanne James and a representative from The Correctional Service of Canada. No one was made available to us.

In a statement, a spokesperson for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says:

As stated before, our Government believes that dangerous criminals belong behind bars, but also that prison is not always the most appropriate place to treat those with severe mental illness.

In a separate statement, a spokesperson for The Correctional Service of Canada says that since Ashley Smith's death, the CSC has renewed agreements for existing psychiatric beds in federal institutions and has begun increasing the number of beds available.

The statement also says that "Canadian law and correctional policy allows for the use of administrative segregation in limited circumstances, when there is no reasonable alternative and for the shortest period of time necessary."

This segment was produced by The Current's Gord Westmacott.


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